Thinking back on what I read in Analog over a twenty year span (as I’ve done a few times here recently), another all-too-common tropes that comes to mind is the use of some obscure scientific idea in a manner contrived to show off just how smart the author thinks he is.
There’s obviously going to be some element of science in science fiction (otherwise it’s space romance or space opera or fantasy or some other “soft” genre). It may be pseudoscientific, it may be totally fabricated but handled consistently as established knowledge for purposes of the plot, but central to the plot will be some element of systematic inquiry into natural phenomena or speculative technology or the like. The problem is not science in science fiction, it’s what science is used and how it’s handled.
What differentiates this kind of science fiction from others is the author’s selection of an obscure concept or theory which they then elaborate on to excess. The tell is that the story is more about this concept than its effects on the characters involved, more a demonstration of the author’s brilliance or cleverness in finding and relating the concept than an exploration of its consequences or potential.
I don’t have the time to delve into the 50-year collection and pick out specific illustrative examples, but in general any story involving obscure concepts from cosmology or quantum mechanics will fall into this category. The more jargon-laden and compulsively detailed the presentation of the concept, and the more tortured or cringe-inducing the effort to make it relevant to the plot, the more certain the reader can be that this is what is going on.
Like so many bad aspects of modern science fiction, this quirk seems driven by the need to demonstrate a superior intellect to others rather than the desire to explore ideas. It’s the class nerd shouting: Look at me! Look how smart I am! My brains make me special and superior! In short, it’s both a product of and a product aimed at the brand of socially-inept but delusionally self-important outcasts observed in the recent Hugo Award controversies and “pink SF” generally.
It’s also, I suspect, what turns a lot of mainstream readers off with regards to science fiction. They might like a popular science fiction movie and decide to give written science fiction a try. But when they encounter one of these stories, they are reminded of the gamma losers they knew in school, and it sours them on the genre as a whole. Whether that association is made consciously or not, I think plays a large role (along with the creepy sexual perversions and taint of pedophilia that stained the genre in the 1960s and 1970s) in why despite the success of science fiction in film and television, reading and writing science fiction are still looked down on.
Apparently I’m not the only one who gave up on Analog magazine circa 2008.
Top shelf is 30 years of Analog from mid 70s to 2007-8 when I stopped getting them because they went all SJW.
In truth, the SJW rot set in long before that, it just became insufferable in the mid-2000s.
Several hours over the holidays spent putting my and my cousin’s old Analog issues into archival bags made me curious about what I might have been missing over the ten years since I cancelled my subscription.
Little, it turned out.
I picked up a copy of the January/February 2018 issue a couple of weeks ago. Reading it reminded me why I ended my subscription back in 2008: the magazine had turned to crap. This issue was largely unreadable crap, which in what little I did manage to read showed many of the Analog themes I mentioned in my previous post.
Here are my immediate reactions. This is a little rough, as I have time at the moment to type up my notes but not to write up more detailed analyses of each story – not that it would matter:
- Artwork: the cover is a mess of lurid colors, cartoonish, amateurish, no depth, does not compare well with the average cover of the early 1960s. As I observed to Carl, the background looks like a bunch of livid green poops swirling around a mushroom. The central figure looks oddly misshapen, and not in the kind of exaggerated pose feminists love to mock in SF and fantasy art – he’s just ineptly drawn; the interior illustrations were lousy, too, being too “busy”, poorly composed, crudely sketched, or clumsy 1995-vintage Photoshop pasteups.
- Editorial: I knew it was going to be about Trump before reading it, or even looking at the title; Schmidt does manage to get to the second paragraph before making it obviously about Trump, but the first paragraph is an emotionally overwrought and sensationalistic lead-in to it; the language throughout has a similar childishly ominous tone: “frightening”, “disturbing”, “darkest chapters in human history”, “feared”, etc.; wrings hands over Trump’s “election is over”, apparently not recognizing the similarity to Obama’s comments in 2008 that ‘I won’ and ‘elections have consequences’; offers new explanation of “consensus” which confuses is and ought with regards to scientific process, and ignores the politicization that corrupts this process (alternative opinions and dissent are met with angry screeching and denunciations and bad-faith dismissal, not a collegial review of the evidence and logic behind them); usual criticisms of people who disagree with his stance on global warming, etc., as being ignorant and anti-science; actually makes the assertion that scientists tend “to try to avoid getting involved in politics”, which he immediately follows up with a rent-seeking appeal for more public science funding; overall, the editorial is saturated with science fetishism and the science cargo-cult mentality; Schmidt is utterly clueless when it comes to persuasion – ‘If we just harangue these morons enough, they might see a glimmer of truth despite themselves, and come around to our enlightened way of thinking’; he concludes by name-dropping Carl Sagan because of course [makes wanking gesture] – but with a hilarious lack of self-awareness, the quote he uses is a condemnation of the public education industry…of which Schmidt earlier reminded us he was/is a part; there’s really nothing new or interesting here, it’s just a stew of the same threadbare talking points blabbered by every fucking-loves-science leftist on these subjects for the past thirty years.
- “The Quantum Magician” by Derek Kunsken – wastes no time involving the wave-particle duality metaphor cliche; utterly boring first page; “puppet theocracies”? actual puppets? really?; made it through two pages before giving up, nothing caught my interest, no hooks to draw me in.
- “The Journeyman” by Michael F. Flynn – swords, feudalism, pretentiously unpronounceable names, kilts, probably other cliches if I’d manage to read the whole thing; larded with goofy “exotic” words serving no purpose but exoticism; not only unpronounceable names, but also weird names and kennings; really disappointing as his “Eifelheim” (published in Analog) is one of my favorite short stories;I’m out.
- “Hobson’s Choices” by Mary A. Turzillo – starts off with “hip” tea namecheck (character doesn’t just drink tea, of course not, but some exotic type with an erotic name); weird art references; overly-technical dinosaur references; one page in, no idea what the story is or where she’s going with all these calculated-to-impress references; Volvo namecheck; does not read as SF at all; I give up.
- “Ten and Ten” by Alan Dean Foster – scientist cultism, but otherwise not a bad story.
- “Margin of Error” by Paul Carlson – not bad, but does slip in a gratuitous political reference to “national popular vote”.
- “One to Watch” by Andrew Barton – overwrought sentimentality; another gratuitous mention of an ‘exotic’ tea (“Pu-erh”); gratuitous use of non-western name (Anh) with no further gender or ethnic information to give it any signficance; human apocalypticism theme (we’ve had the bomb for 70+ years now, get over it); tone is moody, negative, despairing; finished it (it’s only two pages) but remained unclear what the point of the story was.
- “Air Gap” by Eric Cline – pretty clever; felt like it was going to be yet another typical pink-SF humanity-sucks story, so I didn’t see the twist coming at all.
- “Home on the Free Range” by Holly Schofield – a meandering exploration of a bunch of idiots trying to set up a farm on another world they know nothing about; unrealistic characterizations and scenario; skimmed, nothing made me care, so I gave up.
- “When the Aliens Stop to Bottle” by Ian Watson – gratuitous mention of the ‘wage gap’, incoherent plot, nonsensical aliens and situation, unrealistic character (in)actions.
- “Two Point Three Children” by Marissa Lingen – potentially interesting premise, but she goes nowhere with it after introducing it; felt promising but incomplete.
- “The Dissonant Note” by Jeremiah Tolbert – to say I hated this story is an understatement, I hated it almost as much as the story I mentioned in the previous post about the weepy mother shaming alien killbots with her emotional incontinence; if “The Journeyman” had goofy gratuitously weird names, this one had names that, while they fit the context of the story, were so annoying that I could not get past them to comprehend the story; they were annoying precisely because of that context, which involved yet another threadbare SF trope: the noxiously twee use of musical terminology and musical thematic elements; I tried, but it was unreadable – I can’t even remember what it was about beyond a power struggle between two women who may have been dolphin consciousnesses hosted in robot bodies living in a stereotyped matriarchy where everyone communicated by singing and had musical notes for names and used robotic lobsters as IEDs.
- “Endless City” by David Gerrold – confusingly, this one was actually the best story in terms of the skilled use of language (Gerrold’s been writing for fifty-odd years, so you’d expect that much at least), yet it too was a meandering mess in terms of plot; it’s a murder mystery whose first few pages serve as a vehicle for gratuitous insertions of, shall we say, the author’s personal interests and preoccupations; the perspective shifts between the real and virtual worlds are poorly executed, leaving one confused as to whether the protagonist we don’t like or care about is in meatspace, the Matrix, or both at the same time; the intuitive leaps are an (I assume unintentional) parody of Holmes and Poirot stories, and the resolution of the mystery is disappointingly trite; reading it left me feeling both shortchanged and strangely dirty. (It will surprise absolutely no one that in his bio at the end, Gerrold dines out yet again on “The Trouble with Tribbles”.)
- “Blurred Lives” by Adam-Troy Castro – gets off to a bad start right at the beginning with characters named “Draiken” and “Thorne” [cramp-inducing eyeroll]; I tried to read this one fairly, but ended up skimming it, then giving up; what I did read appeared to be an exercise in stream-of-consciousness writing, or some other “experimental” structure, I don’t know – it was a sketchy, present-tense narration of the actions of two characters that seemed to have no point.
Didn’t bother with the science fact articles, because they were rarely ever interesting or useful back when I read Analog regularly. And do I even need to say that I avoided the “poetry” entirely?
I’ll admit that I went into this exercise with a negative attitude, and that that definitely influenced my perceptions of the writing. But even with that confessed bias, I was still appalled at just how bad it actually ended up being. As much as the writing quality declined through the 1990s and early 2000s, I would judge that it has continued on the same trajectory in the decade since I last tried to read an Analog. It was so bad that I simply couldn’t make myself read most of the stories all the way through, and a couple I couldn’t even force myself to skim. The issue currently sits on the bookshelf next to a stack of issues from 1969 – the older ones look intriguing, but this one I am tempted to burn rather than archive with the others.
Honestly, how does this garbage get published by a major science fiction magazine? And how does that magazine stay in business when it publishes such low-quality writing and artwork for twenty-plus years and counting?
I may have mentioned that I inherited my cousin’s collection of Analog magazines a while back, and now have (as far as I can tell) a complete set spanning from October 1958 through July/August 2008. Those are the dates when he started subscribing and I stopped, he having given up on Analog sometime around 2000.
In early December, Carl and I got to talking about a particularly awful story that had appeared in Analog sometime late in that period, and was in hindsight one of the reasons I stopped reading it regularly and then stopped subscribing altogether. I couldn’t remember the title, so spent a couple hours looking at the tables of contents of every issue from July/August 2008 back to around January 1990 to find it, along with a number of the teaser blurbs that appear on the splash pages for individual items.
While I somehow did not find the story in question, I did inadvertently obtain an interesting “statistical” feel for the magazine’s common threads over that period. Unfortunately, I don’t have the time to devote to a proper analysis, so I’ll just list a few of my observations:
- The scientist-in-obscure-field as protagonist, used to the point of cliche; the most transparent offenders are writers who are scientists in obscure fields themselves (blatant author insertion);
- Related, the chronic overuse of academic or institutional internal politics as a backdrop or plot device, as if every reader understands or cares about the inside baseball of tenure panels, thesis committees, research funding allocations, faculty lounges, etc.;
- The (mis)use of the same small set of scientific concepts, over and over, as plot devices;
- The cringe-inducing generation of “new” SF gimmicks by appending “quantum”, “nano”, “cyber”, “crypto”, “neo”, or other cheesy prefix to some threadbare old gimmick;
- Overuse of the same underlying plot theme – in particular, every month seemed to have a story whose blurb centered on “adaptation”, and the related blurbs were reused nearly word-for-word in multiple issues;
- I got confused a couple of times while searching by the similarity of the stories in one issue with an issue several months or years apart, thinking I’d mistakenly picked up an issue I’d already skimmed through;
- There were far more non-SF stories disguised as SF than what I remembered reading at the time – romance stories, cozy mysteries, fantasy, spy-thrillers, whatever, with a thin veneer of Science! pasted onto them in a way that is lazy and immaterial to the story.
- Stories aside, the art of this period (compared to that of the 1950s and 1960s) is unremittingly awful – amateurish mechanics with bad composition and lurid colors occasionally alternating with the latest awkwardly-angled view of the same meticulously smeared spaceship. And that’s just on the covers.
I should have written this up at the time, as I’m sure there are other observations I’ve since forgotten. But now I’m re-thinking my abandoned plan to read and review each issue in the set in chronological order – that’s still not a realistic plan (there are something like 600 issues involved), but given what I saw in the 1990-2008 part of the collection, a statistical sample of one randomly-chosen issue per year may be sufficient.
As for the story I couldn’t find, it had something to do with a colony world where long-departed aliens had left behind a handful of Gort-like robots. These robots would occasionally appear in the colony and kill anyone who failed to freeze into certain ritualized poses or seek shelter in a certain park. A grieving mother loses her mind and launches into an emotional tirade at one of them, which despite their having shown known ability to communicate with humans moves them to desist. It was noteworthy to me in part for being one of those stories where so much essential information is left out that you feel like you’re reading part of a series or a chapter yanked from a novel you haven’t read, and in part because of the maudlin emotional incontinence of the protagonist, and in part because despite the superficial SF context of the story, the resolution of the conflict centers on her teary outburst rather than logic or reason applied to the problem. Or so that’s how I remember the story – I really wanted to re-read it to see how accurate my recollection was.